Sunday, December 22, 2013

Islam in Central America & Fiji: A Documentary & Commentry

Islam In Espanol is a documentary on Islam's call to faith in Central America produced by Bilal Morris, a Muslim journalist and documentary filmmaker from Belize, who has written on Central America and the Caribbean region. The documentary is a good introduction into the expansion of Islam in the region and to stimulate one’s thinking. Here is part one of the documentary followed by a few comments.

My first knowledge about Muslims in Belize came from some of the comments I begun reading from Evan X Hyde. Hyde often talks about the role of Muslim members in the activities of the United Black Association for Development (UBAD).  Given that there are no mosques in San Ignacio, I had never had that sort of exposure.I do remember that there was a mosque (or it was at least a gathering place) in Belmopan near the University, which I always saw as peculiar. I would later gain more knowledge about Islam through readings. 

A few months ago, I attended an Eid celebration hosted by a student organization at the University of South Pacific (USP), Fiji. It was my first experience listening to a speaker on Islam.
Guess Speakers at Eid Cellebration, Aug 2013, USP

Interestingly, as in the documentary, the young people had a speaker from India as the guest speaker. The content of the message and its form of articulation was synonymous to a Christian theology, in my view. Despite my knowledge of Islam interconnections with Judeo-Christian beliefs, I was rather surprised. The songs and verses that were recited required knowledge of Fijian-Hindu and Arabic. It was an interesting experience.
Chicken Palao, given to attendees after
Muslim women in Fiji, at Business Expo
Regarding Muslims in Central America, one cannot foresee any significant growth at the moment. The challenges of interpretation and language are crucial factors that is rightly recognized in the documentary.

There are other factors too, too many to discuss here. Evangelicalism/Pentecostalism is on the rise in many of the Latin American countries and in Belize. These forms of religious beliefs are much less organized allowing for relatively easy ‘ordination’ of preachers and establishment of Churches. Women and youths are some of the main converts. They also have greater participation than say in Catholicism and indeed Islam. The revitalization occurring in Evangelicalism therefore will continue to make its impact in the Central America. This is also not surprising given the historical context of Christianity in the region. For more info, see Anderson, Allan, et al. Studying Global Pentecostalism. University of California Press, 2010.

Islam in some senses is also revitalizing. As the video shows, Arab Muslims are facilitating the teaching of Islam in the region. In Fiji, I have read since the 1980s there has been a substantial number of Mosques built. Some of which are quite extravagant. (I will post a few pictures later.) There are also various organizations in Fiji that seek representation for their religious identity in areas such as politics and education. 

In Belize, we are yet to see significant conversions to Islam especially beyond Belize City. However, I do not expect to see this any time soon.

I also encourage readers to view The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012) directed by Mira Nair. It is a movie that captures the impact of anti-Islamic tendencies after the destruction of the World Trade Centers, also discussed in Bilal's documentary. Here is the trailer: 

Remarks on the Belizean Diaspora, Blog-Radio

Persons interested in issues of the Belize diaspora should visit and join the “Belizean Diaspora Voting Rights: Reconnecting and unifying the Belizean people”. It is a discussion group on the Facebook social-network. A new outlet for its discussions is also “All things Belizean” a radio-blog hosted by Hubert Pipersburgh.

Today’s discussion was hosted by Hubert Pipersburgh and Bilal Morris, both from the Los Angeles based organization called Belize Rural Economic Development of Agriculture through Alliance (BREDAA). The discussion is an interesting one for those interesting in familiarizing themselves with the concerns and arguments at the moment.

I want to highlight two strong points from the discussants. Hubert mentions the necessity of ‘mature politics’. ‘Mature politics’ in this sense refers to the ability to become critical participants in our society. It is a move beyond the lens of the PUDP rethorics (People’s United Party/United Democratic Party). This is a critical point as this issue of citizenship by diaspora Belizeans has become politicized in the past. One strong point in Bilal’s input is the necessity for the diaspora to mobilize in Belize. Bilal argues that this it is crucial for the diaspora to make its presence known in Belize and gain support in the homeland. There are various diaspora collations in the United States but none on the ground in Belize. This point is logical and deserves to be re-thought by those interested in the diaspora representation.

Now the major weakness I see in the discussion was the argument that Central American immigrants, who in many cases are naturalized Belizeans, are ‘demanding representation’ at the expense of born Belizeans. The discussants gave no example or evidence of this happening. Yet this form of reasoning appears more than once in the talk along with the notion that Central-Americans are ‘displacing’ born Belizeans.

I fear that this form of reasoning will fall into a dichotomy of “us” against “them”. This was hinted as the way this form of politics works: Belizeans in the USA ‘envy’ African-Americans; Creole Belizeans ‘envy’ Central Americans; Central Americans ‘envy’ born Belizeans. The argument is that these groups then mobilize to access the rights/privilege of the “other”. This is perhaps one of the biggest troubles and dilemmas of identity politics we discussed in Bilal’s post on “Who is articulating Belize's agenda on race, music & culture?”.

It is also a phenomenon we noted in a post on gender politics and feminism. Initially, feminists sought to fit in on the term/standards of the rights of man. Then the issue then became that these women, ‘first wave feminists’, were actually articulating representation for a white-middle-class-women. There was no inclusion of women of color, homosexual women, third-world women, etc. And today, it is now recognized that no one group or person can provide one universal description of "what is a woman" for feminist politics. Therefore, we must try to learn from this. There is no essentialized 'diaspora' or 'Belizean' out there. 

I do agree with the discussants that identity politics among immigrants is becoming increasingly common in many societies, particularly in the West (USA/Canada/Western Europe). However, there is no mobilization by Central Americans/naturalized Belizeans for representation, as a homogenized group as such (at least not yet).

In recent years, the only comparable argument near this has been by the Belize Grass Roots Youth Empowerment Association (BGYEA). Part of their arguments has been that if immigrants can squat on land - so can native Belizeans.  I do believe that Belizeans need greater access to land but I am very critical of these forms of politics and its popular logics. A similar stream of thought has been projected by Citizens Organized for Liberty Through Action (COLA) among other groups. These forms of politics will only further accentuate the tensions between born Belizeans, naturalized Belizeans, and Belizeans abroad – it is play of differences that matters.

I fear that we may enter the trap of a dichotomous identity politics that could become very troublesome for our society. Indeed, I am already noting this in some of the posts by other members and at one point in talk show where it’s briefly discussed whether Guatemalan’s should (or should not) become naturalized Belizeans given our diplomatic issues. This form of argument has a popular appeal but is very essentialist and oppositional. This is a typical occurrence in identity politics but is an unusual path for Belize which has not had serious problem with ethnic politics so far (see Bolland’s and Shoman’s historical overview of this).

These are not the only strengths or issues discussed. I encourage you to listen to the talk.  Additionally, I want to end by re-posting a comment I had made on national identity and diaspora politics: Cultural identity is about representation/redistribution. The question which remains is whether Belizeans can begin to articulate an identity which can remain un-fixed to the extent that it accommodates differences while being an effective concept/ideology for a new radical mobilization//democratization? (-For theoretical discussions on this I recommend the works of Stuart Hall, such as Old and New Ethnicities (1991)). 

One should also listen to the discussions by SPEAR hosted by BREDAA in Los Angeles in 1989 in which issues of national identity and diaspora rights are discussed: 

*I have also spoken with Bilal Morris on this issue and I am aware that he does not see Central Americans as a problem but the form of arguments discussed were based on a premise that Central Americans are demanding representation. Perhaps, other persons can provide alternative interpretations or points for discussion. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Joseph-Ernest Aondofe Iyo: A biographic sketch of a brilliant historian

Joseph-Ernest Aondofe Iyo is a practicing oral historian, consultant, professor, and researcher on Belizean history, African history and African Diaspora History. He is currently posted as an Associate Professor at the History and Anthropology Program at the University of Belize. He coordinates Historical Methods, Philosophy of History, and West African History, among other courses. He continues to an make invaluable contribution to the development and expansion of Belize’s history and academia in general. 

Joseph-Ernest Aondofe Iyo was born in the Benue State of Nigeria. Educated at Government Secondary School Gboko, and Murtala College of Art, Science and Technology, Makurdi; both in Benue State, Nigeria. He obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in History from the University of Maiduguri, Nigeria, in 1982 and Ph.D. in History from the University of Calabar, Nigeria in 1990.

He began his teaching career in 1984 at the School of Basic Studies in Makuduri before transferring his service to the Benue State University, Makurdi, Nigeria in 1992 as a lecturer.

While in Nigeria, Iyo presented several research papers and contributed chapters on the theory and practice of oral historiography in Nigeria and Africa. He has also contributed papers on social and cultural and political history of the Tiv of Central Nigeria.

In 1995-96, Iyo left Nigeria for the University College of Belize as a visiting lecturer under the Nigeria Belize Technical Assistance Program. After his working visit to Belize, Joe Iyo decided to relocate in Belize to further his academic career in a country with plenty of opportunities for research.

In Belize, he has written and presented several scholarly papers on the theory and practice of oral historiography. He has also written and presented scholarly papers on the socio-economic, educational and political issues in Belize development. He has published a number of articles in learned journals, attended workshops, and presented scholarly papers at International Conferences in Africa, Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean. He has also been the recipient of various research grants including a grant from the Pan-American Institute of Geography and History (PAIGH).

Professor Joseph-Iyo is currently working on several manuscripts on the Belizean and African historical experiences. His latest book is entitled “A concise history of economic development in Belize, 1981-2005”, published in 2005 by the Image Factory. He recently presented a paper at the Belize Archaeology and Anthropology Symposium entitled “Flight from Enslavement in the Bay of Honduras to Freedom in Petén, Guatemala: preliminary findings” published in Research Reports in Belizean History and Anthropology (NICH, 2013).

More personally, Iyo continues to be an incredible mentor. As a student of the history program, Iyo exposed us to a variety of key intellectuals and historical works. Iyo encourages theoretical eclecticism within a postcolonial reference point. Needless to say, he is widely read on Belizean historiography. As his students, Iyo encourages us to think outside the box and to rigorously argue our cases. Importantly, Iyo believes in the role of history and the intellectual in the restructuring of the Belizean society. I encourage you to get a hold of some of his works. 

For a list of his works, please visit Google Books and WorldCat Library

Saturday, September 21, 2013

History of carnivals in Belize: A brief literature review

This article is an excerpt from a publication entitled Carnival in Caledonia: A preliminary ethnographic profile of carnival practices (2013). The paper describes and discusses the cultural forms and meanings of pre-Lenten carnival in Caledonia, Corozal. The publication is available at the Institute for Social and Cultural Research in Belmopan, Belize.

An appropriate definition of carnival is to say that it is a “fusion of street theatre, music, costume and dance” (Herne, Burgess-Macey, & Rogers, 2008, p. 265). A broader definition articulates that carnival is a “collective expression of the perceptions, meanings, aspirations, and struggles engendered by the material conditions of social life and informed by the cultural traditions of the group” (Green & Scher, 2007, p. 6). These perspectives are a challenge to classic definitions which identify carnival origins in Europe as ‘pagan’ practices (Briceño, 1981). However, pre-Lenten carnival practices in Belize are of mixed ‘origins’ comprised of various aspects of Maya, African, and European influences. It is a complex social phenomenon that is the result of syncretism and as such also has many cultural manifestations (Green & Scher, 2007).

This review of carnival practices in Belize reveals various cultural continuities, discontinuities, and innovations reflective of particular social contexts. Green and Scher (2007) rightly assert that the study of carnival ought to be “situated within migration patterns, diverse forms of colonialist discourse, forms of cultural resistance, and desires for cultural recognition” (p. 2). Whereas one is likely to say that pre-Lenten carnival in Belize is of Maya/Mestizo cultural traditions (Briceño, 1981), the literature suggests that it is a much more hybrid tradition. The evolution of carnival in Belize is complex and discursive. To re-trace a precise development of carnivals is a difficult, if not impossible, undertaking. Thus, this review cannot be held as comprehensive.

It is first necessary to make a conceptual distinction between the major forms of carnival in Belize. Previous writers (Briceño, 1981; Briggs, 1996) have written of “carnival in Belize” as if the term refers to one set of practices or one specified occasion. This is not the case. Carnivals in Belize can be classified into two ‘ideal types’. One way of highlighting this distinction is to describe carnaval (Spanish word) vis-à-vis carnival (in English).[1] The Spanish word carnaval is the common usage in northern Belize to refer to the local cultural forms of carnival festivities. This carnival occurs several weeks preceding the period of Lent but the major highlight is the Three Days of Carnival before Ash Wednesday (Briceño, 1981). On the other hand, the everyday usage of the English word carnival typically refers to the festivities during the September celebrations which are carried out across Belize and which has a nationalist underpinning (Briggs, 1996; Collier, 1994). Yet, this linguistic ‘difference’ is too ambiguous and impracticable in written form (Briceño, 1981; Magana, 1991). A better classification is ‘Pre-Lent Carnival’ vis-à-vis ‘Populist Carnival’. This classification provides a useful framework to the study of contemporary carnivals in Belize but should not be considered as fixed or dichotomous concepts.

To date “Carnival in Northern Belize” by Briceño (1981) is the only ‘scholarly’ article published on pre-Lent carnival in Belize. Besides his article, there are various articles in magazines and newspapers describing and rendering useful perspectives (Briggs, 1996; Collier, 1994; Nunez, 1994). These interpretations are helpful but limited by a nostalgic rhetoric not unfamiliar to the study of carnival in the Caribbean (Green, 2007). The approach here is critical and cautious; this allows us to recognize the interconnections and inner-dynamics of the social world often evaded by nostalgia and grand narratives (Baronov, 2004; Green, 2007).

Accordingly, pre-Lent carnival in northern Belize was practiced in many of the earliest villages established by refugees during the Caste War of Yucatan (1847-1901) (MC4302, 1948). It is important to stress that the thousands of ‘refugees’ that came to Belize did not occur in one specific year or set of years (MC4302, 1948; MC4303, 1968). During this expanse of period, there were various waves of migrations. Some communities were established primarily by Maya refugees, others by the Mestizos, while others settlements were more diverse including Spaniards and other Europeans (MC4302-4303, BARS). The village of Caledonia was a known timber camp by the 1850s. It was comprised of the “ancient Indians”, Caste War immigrants, Scottish families, Jamaicans and quite possibly Africans/Creole as laborers (MC4302, 1968). The internal migration patterns also make it difficult to date precisely the origin of Caledonia and villages in northern Belize.

The earliest forms of carnival practices in Belize are recorded among the enslaved Africans. The first implicit evidence of carnival practices is from 1790 when a visitor recorded that “'a favorite custom among the Slaves [sic] to amuse themselves, by dancing about in the streets’” (cited in Bolland, 2003, p. 54). Gibbs (1883) also says that “they [the Africans] were made perfectly happy by the six-weeks carnival of dancing and dissipation annually granted [to] them at Christmas” (p. 4). There are many records which support the fact African groups had carnival practices (Bolland, 2003; Iyo, Froyla, & Humphreys, 2007).  This is not surprising given West Africa’s long standing cultural practices of masquerade, dance, and music (Iyo et al., 2007; Liverpool, 1998). There is no precise date as to when these carnival practices discontinued in urban Belize. Suffice it to state that two hypothetical and interconnected factors are the cultural repression by the colonialists and the ‘creolization’ phase that occurred post-emancipation (Bolland, 2003; Iyo et al., 2007).    

These African traditions likely impacted the expressions and transformations of pre-Lent carnival in Belize. During the period of the various waves of migrations from the Yucatan, there were already logwood camps established along the Rio Hondo, Corozal and New River (Iyo et al., 2007).  For instance, the census of 1861 estimated that about two-hundred African born individuals were working in the areas of northern Belize (ibid, 106). There is also evidence that cultural forms such as Bruk Down and Sambay (called ‘Sanbay’ by Mexicans) became part of Chetumal Quintana Roo’s (Mexico) folk culture during Christmas festivities (Canul, 2001; Rojas, 1996). Therefore, African cultural forms were not limited to urban Belize. This exchange and spread of cultural practices to Mexico was able to occur because of the many chicle and timber workers in the northern frontier (ibid).  Therefore, one can hypothetically assert that cultural interactions also took place in regard to carnival practices.

Marcus Canul (2001) provides rich historical and ethnographic evidence of the relationships between pre-Lent carnival practices found in the Yuctan and northern Belize to Afro-Spanish traditions in Cuba. At least three of the comparsas (theatric-dances) practiced in northern Belize are shown to have strong resemblance to its counterparts in Cuba, namely la culebra, el papalote, and la guaranducha. The word quaranducha (untranslatable) is said to be of Bantu origins but which found a peculiar expression in the location of Trinidad, Cuba (ibid). Anderson (2006) also support the view that carnival in Cuba is of predominantly African cultural heritage. Canul (2001) hypothesizes the migration route of pre-Lent carnival from Cuba is via a migration wave from Cuba to Campeche to Cozumel to Payo Obispo (Chetumal) to northern Belize.

The Spanish and Catholic influence also played a role in pre-Lent carnival in Belize and the Caribbean region. Carnival in Spain was known for “‘gambling, bull-fights, weddings, masquerade parties, and dances [...] in every town and vil-lage’" (Spicer,1937, quoted in Liverpool, 1998, p. 27). In Trinidad and Tobago, it was the Spaniards who legislated that the celebration of carnival be held for three days preceding Ash Wednesday (Liverpool, 1998).  Yet, the role of Moors (north Africans) occupation of many parts of Spain must also be considered as an influential factor in the development of carnival cultural practices before European arrival to the so called ‘New World’ (Canul, 2001; Iyo et al., 2007; Liverpool, 1998). Therefore, there are many factors that contribute to what we now observe as pre-Lent carnival in Belize. 

It must also be noted that pre-Lent carnival is not limited to inland territory of northern Belize. It is also carried out in the island town of San Pedro, Belize. Although it shares many similar comparsas with in land villages, there are also some notable differences. In San Pedro it includes the playful game of attacking participants with paint materials such as “flour, powder, blue [paint], lipstick and the black sooth that accumulated on the cooking pots” (Nunez, 1994, p. 22). The practices in San Pedro are also transforming at a faster pace. For instance, staged carnival competitions instead of door to door comparsas are much more recurrent practice in the island (ibid). Such features of pre-Lent carnival in San Pedro among others provides an opportunity for a comparative case-study.

In regard to populist carnival in Belize, its development occurred in 1975 (Collier, 1994). It started as an initiative by a group of women with support of their husbands to revitalize cultural traditions and depoliticize the National Day celebrations (Collier, 1994; “Belize Kolcha”, 2011). According to Henry Young, “carnival started a little after me and my wife and Winston Smiley and his wife we visited Trinidad in 1975 and we saw the Carnival and we came back and I thought it would be something good for the young people of Belize” (“Belize Kolcha”, 2011). It started out as a small parade mostly of children and women and gradually transformed into a national celebration. By the 1990s, it counted with participation of government departments and local businesses and was sometimes carried out in other district towns (Briggs, 1996). The nationalist element of Trinidad and Tobago’s carnival (Green & Scher, 2007) was a foundational feature of September carnival celebrations in Belize. This populist carnival is now considered a celebration of national importance (Briggs, 1996). This form of carnival is equally understudied but also likely impacted the development and transformation of pre-Lent carnival in northern Belize.

This review of the literature shows that carnivals in Belize are part of local and global histories, experiences and contingencies. There are notable features of Maya, African, and European culture in different phases and forms of carnival traditions in Belize. Carnival is not a static cultural form and will therefore continue to change. The practice of carnival is about “innovation, novelty, and the new” (Green, 2007, p. 70). While, this ethnographic case study is designed to increase the current perspectives of carnival in Belize, it does not claim to be the final interpretation of a dynamic cultural festivity.
Cocom, R. (2013). "History of carnivals in Belize: A brief literature review". In Carnival in Caledonia: A preliminary ethnographic profile of carnival practices. Research Reports in Belizean History and Anthropology. Institute for Social and Cultural Research. Retrieved from:

Useful Sources:
Anderson, T. F. (2006). Carnival, Cultural Debate, and Cuban Identity in" La comparsa" and" Comparsa habanera". Revista de estudios hispánicos, 40(1), 49-78.
Baronov, D. (2004). The conceptual foundations of social research methods. Colorado: Paradigm Publishers.
Bolland, N. (2003). Colonialism and resistance in Belize: essays in historical sociology. Mexico: Cubola.
Briceño, J. (1981). Carnival in Northern Belize. Belizean Studies, 9(3), 1-7.
Briggs, J. (1996). Carnival in Belize. Explore, 29, 28.
Canul, M. R. (2001). Música y músicos tradicionales de Quintana Roo: Instituto Quintanarroense de la Cultura.
Collier, J. (1994). Costumes, parades, and lots of glitter. Belize Currents, 22, 23-26.
Gibbs, A. R. (1883). British Honduras: an historical and descriptive account of the colony from its settlement, 1670: S. Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington.
Green, G. (2007). Authenticity, Commerce, and Nostalgia in the Trinidad Carnival. In G. Green & P. Scher (Eds.), Trinidad carnival: the cultural politics of a transnational festival. USA: Indiana University Press.
Green, G., & Scher, P. (Eds.). (2007). Trinidad carnival: the cultural politics of a transnational festival: Indiana University Press.
Herne, S., Burgess-Macey, C., & Rogers, M. (2008). Carnival in the Curriculum. International Journal of Art & Design Education, 27(3), 264-278. doi: 10.1111/j.1476-8070.2008.00588.x
Iyo, A., Froyla, T., & Humphreys, F. (2007). Belize New Vision: African and Maya Civilizations, heritage of a new nation. Belize: Factory Books.
Liverpool, H. U. (1998). Origins of Rituals and Customs in the Trinidad Carnival: African or European? TDR (1988-), 42(3), 24-37. doi: 10.2307/1146677
Magana, R. (1991). Carnival in Progresso Village. [Transcribed by Phylicia Pelayo]. ISCR/NICH, Belize.
MC4302. (1948). History of Northern and Other Districts.  Belize: Belize Archives Records & Services.
MC4303. (1968). Writing of Local History.  Belize: Belize Archives Records & Services.
Nunez, A. (1994). San Pedro Carnival: An Island Tradition. Belize Currents, 23, 21-22.
Rojas, D. (1996). Bailes populares de México Quintana Roo.   Retrieved June 23, 2013, from